IRON-CLAD SHIP U.S.S. Canonicus, launched in 1863 by the Union navy, was just one of many military innovations made during the Civil War. Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-22439
Editor’s note: The following is the introduction to a special e-publication called Civil War Innovations. Published in September 2012, the collection draws articles from the archives of Scientific American.
Any Civil War buff is familiar with the technological advances of that era: the carnage caused when tactics failed to accommodate breech-loading rifled muskets and artillery pieces, the truly revolutionary introduction of armored ships and railroad networks, and the merely tantalizing deployment of submerged warships and reconnaissance balloons. Historians still argue about the extent to which the Civil War was the first “modern” war, but it is impossible to deny that the technology with which it was fought foretold the ways in which future wars would become bigger, bloodier and more devastating. Fewer people realize, however, that a similar explosion in technological creativity occurred away from the battlefield.
Newspapers became tools of mass communication in the 1830s with the invention of the rotary press and the application of steam power to printing. These and other innovations brought down the price of newspapers; by the 1830s and 1840s newspapers such as the trio of New York papers founded during this time—the Tribune, the Sun and the Herald—were sold for a penny and reached massive audiences. The development of the telegraph in the late 1840s sped the gathering and distribution of news; the Associated Press was founded in 1849 to take advantage of the new technology. The gradual knitting together of the nation by railroads—especially in the North and Midwest—further hastened communication.
During the antebellum years, these communication technologies facilitated the anti-slavery campaign that started in earnest in the early 1830s, allowing abolitionist broadsides, brochures, books and newspapers to be distributed cheaply and widely throughout the North and helping Frederick Douglass and other abolitionist speakers spread their message to northern towns large and small. Indeed, it could be argued that the rapid expansion of communication technologies in the decades leading up to the war, which made it easier for reformers to get their arguments out, gave abolitionists a far greater role in the sectional conflict than their numbers would suggest.
Once the war started, communications technologies ensured that Americans would have much better access to war reports and images than in any previous war. Hundreds of newspaper reporters traveled with armies from Virginia to Mississippi, bringing news to soldiers’ families back home faster than ever before. Although often wildly inaccurate—newspapers ran stories without checking facts or independently confirming accounts—they pulled civilians into the war. Newspapers were filled with stories and maps and casualty lists; people who had been children during the Civil War recalled years later that they had eagerly followed the progress of “their” armies—in which fathers or older brothers often marched—through their local papers.
Magazines such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly went a step further: They sent dozens of intrepid professional artists and illustrators into the field—Alfred Waud and Winslow Homer were only the most famous—and employed the fairly new technology of “electrotyping,” which used a combination of chemicals and electric current to make more detailed and easily reproduced prints. As a result, these “illustrated weeklies” could show realistic images of the war in as little time as a few days. Readers could see lines of battle or columns of retreating men, dead and wounded soldiers, freed slaves and war heroes.